Q: I’m curious about the title of this book, Tamarind Woman. Given the description of a tamarind tree that prefaces the story, what inspired you to write this story?
A: I was interested in exploring the lives of women separated not only by time (in terms of age, that is), but by space as well. Kamini has moved from the old world into the new. Her mother, who grew up in a different world, was trapped in it and therefore developed an acidic tongue to deal with her frustrations.
Q: Do you think her acidic tongue—and therefore the nickname “tamarind woman”—ended up giving Saroja strength or sorrow?
A: Saroja’s acidic tongue was her only defense against the rule-bound world in which she found herself. She used sharp words to carve a place for herself in that world. So, yes, I suppose her tongue did give her strength of a kind. It also brought unhappiness.
Q: The structure of Tamarind Woman is really interesting. Why did you isolate the two main characters and have them narrate their stories in flashback?
A: This book is largely about memories and the labile, shifting nature of memory. Most relationships float on a sea of memories, and this is particularly so in families where each member of the family uses memory to connect with parents or siblings. In Tamarind Woman, when Kamini, the daughter, moves away from Saroja, the mother, both spatially (to Canada) and temporally (by growing up), she depends on memory to reconstruct the past she has left behind. But by bringing in Saroja’s side of the story, I wanted to play with the idea that memory is insubstantial and subjective. How do we know which story is true?
Q: Indeed, I am fascinated by the idea of memory and its historical/psychological fluidity. I think almost everyone looks to the past for some sense of continuity within oneself and one’s family. If memory is insubstantial in nature, where do you think we find the substance of these identities?
A: Both Kamini and Saroja use their memories to create a sense of who they are in relation to their separate and intertwined worlds. Each one has a different memory of the same events sometimes, but it is this that solidifies and becomes the reality each believes in.
Q: Reading the novel, I found myself imitating Kamini in my attempt to sift through stories in search of the truth. Kamini and Saroja’s accounts of the past oftentimes conflict, pointing to not only their different perspectives, but their differences as storytellers. Do you think Kamini and Saroja are more dissimilar than similar? Why? A: There’s a scene in the novel where Saroja rubs oil through Kamini’s hair while giving her a bath. More than just bathing her daughter, this represents Saroja giving herself—her ideas and stories—to her daughter in a wordless ceremony. In many ways, I think Kamini and Saroja are quite similar. Although Kamini is quick to berate her mother for what she believes is a false rendition of the past, she herself holds on to her stories and her point of view just as tightly as Saroja does. Perhaps in a similar situation, Kamini would become more like her mother. Instead she falls into very different circumstances and thus grows away from the possibility of becoming her mother.
Q: Roopa, Kamini’s sister, had very little voice in the novel.Why was she so silent?
A: Well, she did have a voice in one version of the novel. But she bored me! Also I thought it would have been too much to have three competing versions of the truth. So Roopa was abandoned in favor of a better story.
Q: Anytime a woman author writes a story about a mother-daughter relationship, it seems difficult not to read the author’s experiences into the story. How autobiographical is Tamarind Woman?
A: The landscape of the novel—that is, the railway backdrop—is from my own experience. My father was an officer in the Indian Railway, and I lived the life that Saroja and Kamini do. The only character who is somewhat true to life is the mad aunt Meera, who is based on a neurotic relative. All the other characters are composites of people I have known or have met briefly and been curious about.The emotional experiences and lives of these characters are fictitious. I have invested a lot of my own emotional energy into creating these characters, projecting myself into each of their heads and hearts in the process of writing them. But this is, I suppose, what most writers do.
Q: As you wrote the novel, which character did you identify with the most? Which one did you find the most difficult to construct?
A: I found it hardest to build Kamini, the daughter. Saroja, with her furious, untrammelled nature, came first and most easily to me.
Q: I think most people would agree that Saroja’s character was the easiest to relate to. Do you think people naturally identify more easily with passionate, perhaps even vitriolic, characters?
A: Yes, perhaps. Isn’t there at least one moment in your life when you have wanted to give vent to all your frustrations? To let your tongue run loose? Saroja doesn’t always allow the rules of decency to dictate her behavior or her voice.
Q: Did you write the two sections separately, or did the two characters emerge simultaneously?
A: The mother came first. For a long time it was her book alone. And then, about fifty pages into the book, I realized that she could be making up the entire story, so I wanted a different voice to provide balance. Thereafter, the sections were written simultaneously—a little on Kamini, a little on Saroja, and so on.
Q: Earlier we talked about how memories and storytelling constitute the major theme of Tamarind Woman. Did you have a different theme in mind when first starting the novel?
A: You have to remember that Tamarind Woman was my first novel. Initially all I wanted was to give voice to a fierce, angry woman. I know a lot of women just like Saroja, both in and outside my family. I had no real understanding of what I was trying to do with this character, I just wanted to explore her life, her mind, her world. At the time I was preoccupied with memories.An uncle had just died, and I remember thinking about all the stories that died with him. It was then that I started thinking about memories and how they are turned into family lore, and so the book was born with more characters and their alternate versions of family history.
Q: There aren’t any strong male characters in the novel. Did you intend to write a story dominated by women?
A: Yes, I did. I come from a family of strong, opinionated women, and I wanted to write about people like them.
Q: Both Tamarind Woman and your subsequent novel, The Hero’s Walk, grapple with the issues of family roles, identities, and traditions in modern India. Do you think India is going through an identity crisis?
A: I would like to preface this reply by pointing out that my view of India is that of a partial outsider. I live in Canada, and although I was born and brought up in India and lived there for three decades, now my vision of it is mediated by distance. That said, I think India is one of those countries that will always be in a state of flux. Its identity—and this is why I find it so fascinating as a writer—arises out of this endless state of change, chaos, and contradiction. It is true, though, that India has been changing at an accelerated pace in the past decade or so. This change seems to be concentrated in urban India rather than in the villages.
Q: Almost all the contemporary literature I’ve read on Indian culture seems to countenance the theme of India and Indians in a state of constant contradiction.Where do you think this “endless state of change, chaos, and contradiction” arises within Indian culture itself ?
A: Yes, it is a country that goes back as a unified cultural—if not political—entity at least five thousand years. So many religions, sects, castes, and classes exist simultaneously, rubbing up against each other, sometimes in harmony and other times uneasily. Ancient ideas, beliefs, and rituals still exist and are practiced even as the modern world intrudes into this fabric of the past. The past and the present are just two of the thousands of threads that are woven into this fabric. India has and will probably always be an intricate, noisy collision of people, time, histories, beliefs, languages—a source of any number of stories. Q: What were the reactions of your family members to Tamarind Woman? Did the women like it more than the men?
A: Most liked it. My younger cousins loved the book, but the older relatives were more cautious in their enthusiasm. I remember an aunt saying to my mother,“I’d better watch what I say . . . she’ll put it in her book!” There was a general perception among family members that the book had to be about someone in my life.